President Jimmy Carter stands at the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project 2017 site in Edmonton, Canada. Habitat for Humanity

Richard Florida talks to the former president about housing, Habitat for Humanity, and how government assistance enabled their current success.

“A lot of people don't look at housing as a human right, but it is.”

That’s what former President Jimmy Carter told me when I spoke with him from the site of his latest Carter Work Project site in Edmonton, Canada. “To have a decent place to live is a basic human right. And also to have a chance to live in peace and to have adequate health care and adequate education, so you can take advantage of your talents,” he added.

Carter’s belief in housing as a fundamental right is rare in the United States, which provides so little support for affordable housing compared to other advanced industrialized nations. Analogous to the political rights of freedom of speech or religion, the notion of an economic right to housing is not recognized in the U.S. Constitution, but it is by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants.

I asked the former President why he sees housing as a human right when so many today think of it as a commodity or investment to be bought, sold, and traded for profit. “I don't see how a family can enjoy other human rights like freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to vote, if they live in a disreputable place of which they are ashamed and makes their family lower their standard of ethical and moral values,” he said from Edmonton.

In the age of Trump, of massive cutbacks to Housing and Urban Development and affordable housing, and of a broad conservative backlash against any sort of government involvement in providing housing to people in need, this statement was both heartening and disheartening. It’s heartening to hear such words from a former President, but disheartening to see how far our nation has drifted from this idea. Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously touted this and other basic economic rights in his proposed “Second Bill of Rights”—rights that he said the country had already come to recognize and should now implement.

We talked during the 34th annual edition of Habitat for Humanity’s Carter Work Project, a home-building blitz led by President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. He worked so hard on the next site in Winnipeg that he had to be hospitalized for dehydration after we spoke, but he was back on the job site the following day. We spoke via Skype and were supported on site by CityLab’s Andrew Small.

Since 1984, the annual event has built, renovated, and restored 3,944 homes in 14 countries, while Habitat itself operates in about 70 countries around the world. The Carter Work Project typically switches each year between building in a city in the United States—like Memphis, Tennessee, the site of last year’s build, and a city outside the United States, like Edmonton this year. Habitat homeowners put in 500 hours of “sweat equity” to purchase their home at a more affordable interest rate. The mantra from the organization is a “hand up” rather than a “handout” but the example also promotes awareness about affordable housing’s benefits to a community.

“Children have better grades in school, they stay off the street,” Carter said. “They're proud to invite friends to come to their own homes, and parents have more confidence that their children will behave.”

Carter sees these projects as a part of broader neighborhood renewal, reinforcing and creating a tighter knit fabric of community. “There’s a building of the quality of a neighborhood where a lot of people think that building a Habitat project in a neighborhood is going to hurt it, but it really is one of the stimulations for the entire community to become much better,” he told me.

For Carter, building homes is about not just shelter, but pride of ownership: “For families to work side by side with me and Rosalynn and thousands of other volunteers and provide a decent home for their family to live in gives a parent, a working mother or father, a sense of pride and self-respect.”

Carter told me how his own life experience informed his views on housing. He grew up in a Sears Roebuck house in Georgia that his father bought after returning his service in the first World War, much like a Veteran’s Administration mortgage would make my family’s home in a suburb of Newark possible after my father’s service in World War II.

In the clip above we discuss how that government assistance in return for that service gave our families a leg up. Our fathers’ stories represent much more than a self-congratulatory narrative of hard work and self-reliance. They are a narrative of government support for affordable housing in return for service and a pathway to a better life. Carter famously rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Navy and ran his own business before becoming president. Meanwhile, access to better schools gave my brother and me the chance to be the first in our family to go to college.

Carter sees that experience as “a constant reminder to me of how much a decent home was a blessing when I was a child” that helped him to overcome the potential challenge of living in a small community. Simply put, he says, “a place to live was a stimulation for me to have a better life.”

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